The best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics
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The best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics

Former prime minister Tony Abbott was on about it on this website a few days ago, Liberal Party vice-president Karina Okotel said it on ABC Radio recently and Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby repeats it at every opportunity: the debate about marriage equality is not, as the survey question will ask, about whether the Marriage Act should be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry, but is really a debate about religious freedom.

Hang on a minute – since when has Christianity been so concerned about religious freedom?

Christianity has not always shown great concern for religious freedom.

Christianity has not always shown great concern for religious freedom.

Not ever, really, is the short answer.

Since the beginning, Christians have been busy attacking other people's religious freedom by trying to convert them. Christianity has suppressed other people's religious freedom everywhere from Rome to the outback.

Where was Christian concern for religious freedom during the Spanish Inquisition? During the Counter-Reformation, when Catholics persecuted Protestants and drove them out of Europe to the New World?

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Where was concern for religious freedom when the traditional beliefs of Africans taken into slavery in the Americas were suppressed? Where was respect for religious freedom when native Americans and Indigenous Australians were dispossessed of their land – the basis of their spiritual beliefs – and herded onto Christian missions?

Where were the defenders of religious freedom in 2016 when the racist, right-wing United Patriots Front rallied to oppose the construction of a mosque in Bendigo?

Of course, it's not just Christianity – whenever one religion dominates a society, religious freedom suffers. Think of the persecution of people of the Baha'i faith in Iran, of Orthodox Christians in parts of Syria controlled by Islamic State, and of Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar today.

This sudden defence of religious freedom by churches and religious lobby groups just doesn't wash.

The best guarantee of religious freedom is a secular society where people of all faiths – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, whatever – and people of no faith are free to practice their beliefs in the privacy of their homes, churches, temples, mosques and synagogues, and don't get to tell anyone else what to believe or how to live.

The best guarantee of religious freedom is keeping religion out of politics. The only religious freedom threatened by changing the Marriage Act is the freedom of organised religion – whether established churches or lobby groups – to tell the rest of us how to live. That's a freedom that has no place in our secular society.

Matt Holden is a Fairfax Media contributor.